When SOPHIE put out PRODUCT in 2015, it was meant as more of a singles collection than an album. Most of the tracks were released week by week in the leadup to its release and some had even come out years before, so it ended up playing more like a greatest hits album than anything else. That loose structure, with just one banger after another, was great but it felt like there was little intention behind it. That’s not the case with OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES, her much teased follow-up and what’s being billed as her proper debut album.
The UK producer has spent the last few years working her maximalist pop magic for some big names, from her many collaborations with Charli XCX to Madonna to a Vince Staples song that featured Kendrick Lamar. And while the effects of that are still slowly dripping to mainstream radio, it still seems like only a matter of time before a top-tier pop artist uses that sound to their advantage.
There could definitely have been a version of this album that capitalized on that, that took her penchant for metallic post-pop alternate reality hits and doubled down on it. A lot of songs like that were definitely left on the cutting room floor for this album — if you’ve been following the rabid SOPHIE live rip community, there’s a lot of them, and they’re all really good. But OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES is a lot weirder than it has to be.
It’s front-loaded with the songs we’ve heard already — the glittering ballad “It’s Okay To Cry” and its brasher counterparts, “Ponyboy” and “Faceshopping” — and it takes a sharp deviation from there. The album’s middle part is filled with formless experimental electronic droning. “Is It Cold In The Water?” and “Infatuation” play like two sides of the same coin, slowly cascading rhythms that feature one of the album’s major collaborators, the Canadian musician Cecil Believe, who formerly put out music as Mozart’s Sister and also plays a big part in SOPHIE’s recent live shows. Both are fine, but back to back they sound repetitive — maybe only one or the other would have sufficed. They’re followed by a good example of what I wish this middle of the album sounded more like — “Not Okay” is brief and nauseating (in a good way), the sort of glitchy ambient noise I can get behind.
It’s not that this middle section is necessarily bad — it’s definitely not, at least from a technical perspective — but it feels extraneous and, unfortunately, skippable. It’s understandable that SOPHIE would want to demonstrate a more experimental, ambient side on her official debut, but it’s a shame that so much of it lacks urgency. And that’s only more apparent by how the album awkwardly rises out of that mode towards the end. The unlikely transition from the cavernous and dark six-minute-long “Pretending” to the indelible “Immaterial” is fantastic — smashing those two disparate forms together sounds exciting — but the buildup goes on for far too long. It’s admirable what SOPHIE is doing, placing the grotesquely beautiful and the glossily pretty side-by-side, but its execution comes across as a little scattered.
That said, “Immaterial” is completely worth the mixed bag that comes before it. It’s been a highlight at the live show experience that SOPHIE has been putting on since the spring, and it shines on the album. It’s a perfect pop song, a flip on Madonna’s “Material Girl” that turns it from a celebration of all things corporeal into what sounds like a celebration of leaving your body behind entirely. “I could be anything I want/ Anyhow, any place, anywhere, anyone, any form, any shape, anyway, anything I want,” goes the aerated climax. It’s the kind of smart, satisfying pop music that SOPHIE excels at, working as both social commentary and a way to escape all those over-intellectualized thoughts that plague us and just let loose.
When I saw SOPHIE’s live show a few months ago, it felt like the future of pop. I left that show glowing, my head buzzing with possibilities. It did a much better job at getting across that feeling — the joy and power of music to become whoever, whatever you want to be — than OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES does. The album’s final track, “Whole New World” and its accompanying denouement “Pretend World,” is a good note to go out on, and a taste of what that whole new world could feel like. Those last two tracks and the singles are highlights, but the rest of the album — the stuff we haven’t heard in advance — fails to match up.
Even PRODUCT, a singles collection, felt like it was more than a sum of its parts, that it was hinting at a world in the background bigger and better than our own. There’s definitely a lot of intentionality behind OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES — an effort to create a blend of darkness and light that mimics euphoric dysphoria — but the follow-through leaves something to be desired. SOPHIE has done a lot of great things already and she’s going to go on to do more, I know it, but sadly this one feels like a bit of a letdown.
OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES is out now.